Protestants, Catholics have more in common now, some say

Protestants, Catholics have more in common now, some say

Timothy George says he isn’t surprised to see studies that show Catholics and Protestants get along better than they did 500 years ago when the Reformation happened.

From his perspective, a lot has changed in the past 50 years alone.

“The hostility level has gone down, even from when I was a little boy,” said George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham.

He remembers when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 — the first Catholic to ever be elected to the position.

“There was significant prejudice on both sides at that time, and that’s a lot less now than it was,” George said.

The Reformation is not over. Some significant issues still divide Catholics and Protestants, and the message of the Reformation still needs to be heard, he said. But even still, there’s greater unity than there used to be.

Why the split happened

In 1517, Catholics and Protestants were pretty different — different enough for Martin Luther to effectively break up with the Catholic Church by nailing his 95 Theses to its door.

His beef with them? First he didn’t agree with the fact that, at the time, the Catholic Church sold indulgences, a type of “credit” church leaders said could reduce the penalty for sin in the afterlife. Church members could earn these through good works.

Luther’s stance was that sin was covered by grace alone.

He had other grievances too. The Bible, not the Pope or the Church, was the only source of religious authority, he said.

It was a divide that sent Protestants in a different direction for the next five centuries.

“The two main parts of the Reformation — the normative authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone — are views that Protestants continue to affirm,” George said. “Without them, the Reformation message is completely lost.”

Protestants and Catholics have made progress toward agreeing on the grace of God as the agent of salvation, but they’ve made very little progress on the question of authority, George said. “There we are pretty deeply divided.”

But even so, according to recent studies by Pew Research, across Europe and the U.S., “the prevailing view is that Protestants and Catholics today are more similar religiously than they are different.”

Though reformers believed that salvation came through faith alone — a view known as “sola fide” in Latin — many Protestants today believe that a combination of faith and works are necessary to reach heaven, according to Pew. That’s traditionally the Catholic-held viewpoint.

Whether or not Protestants indicate they believe in “faith alone” is directly tied to whether or not they were taught that sola fide is a Protestant tradition, the studies show.

Of those who were taught that, such as Southern Baptists, 77 percent agree with it. Of the more mainline Protestants who weren’t taught that, only 35 percent agree.

But theological similarities and differences aside, other things have fostered neighborly sentiments between Protestants and Catholics in recent decades, George said — things like the sanctity of human life and other social issues.

“One of the things that’s drawn evangelicals and Catholics together is the way the world has become increasingly secularized. The world has become anti-religious and hostile to people of faith to a great extent,” he said. “It’s been a more difficult environment for faith groups, so we’ve found ourselves joining together more. We (Protestants and Catholics) don’t agree on everything, but if you’re comparing the way it was 100 years ago to today, it’s a big difference.”

George himself has been contributing to this neighborly sentiment through his work with Thomas Guarino as co-editor of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics.”

Guarino, who teaches theology at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in South Orange, New Jersey, says there is “no question” that Protestants and Catholics are “much less divided today than five centuries ago.”

From the Catholic perspective, he attributes much of this to the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the worldwide Catholic bishops and theologians held in the 1960s.

“The Council, coming as it did not long after WWII, the Holocaust and the use of nuclear weapons — and with the world in the midst of the Cold War — saw as one of its main goals the need to forge strong ties among all men and women,” Guarino said.

They wanted to focus on the things that unite those of faith, not divide them, he said. “While certainly not ignoring differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Council emphasized those foundational beliefs that unite all Christians, such as faith in the One God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and faith in Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the world.”

That council strived for unity and always referred to Protestants as “separated brethren,” Guarino said, “indicating that Catholics and Protestants are part of the same family despite the differences that exist between them.”

Those differences, other than the ones already mentioned, include the nature and number of the sacraments and the structure of the church and its ministries, he said.

“In ecumenical dialogue, we probe these issues in great depth to determine the extent of our agreement and disagreement,” Guarino said.

But, he added, “Even in areas where there is legitimate disagreement, we have found points of unity and common faith.”

In the U.S., George finds that Catholics and Protestants are more willing than ever to sit down and study the Bible together, despite their differences.

‘A wonderful thing’

“I think that’s a wonderful thing, a unifying thing,” he said.

And Pew reports similar sentiments in Europe, even though the Reformation led to more than a century of wars and persecution there.

In every European country surveyed, roughly 90 percent or more Protestants and Catholics say they are willing to accept members of the other tradition as neighbors. And large majorities of both say they would be willing to accept members of the other group into their families.

“I think there is greater unity today between Catholics and Protestants than at any time since the Reformation,” Guarino said.